Friday, August 19, 2011

Matters of Approval

When we were growing up, there was usually a right and a wrong answer for almost everything. What is the proper way to read? Sitting upright with the book held at eye level approximately 1.5 feet away. What is the right way to sit? Never with your back hunched over. What is the right amount of rice to serve? Always more than just one scoop. What is the amount of food properly left behind on one's plate? Certainly never just a morsel or a spoonful.

These answers, fed to us in bite-sized aphorisms, ranged from the mundane to the weighty. For some of the more serious issues, the questions were never posed because the right answers were presumed to be understood. For example, our parents never asked us, What kind of a person would you like to marry? They never asked, Do you wish to marry a white person? What about someone of Hispanic background? Or someone black? We understood that we were to marry a Korean.

I'm not sure how we first came to that understanding. Maybe the time when my father consoled his friend whose daughter was dating an Indian. My dad's friend muttered, "An Indian," as he spit on the ground. Or the time I told my mom that my Korean-American friend was married to a Japanese woman, and she exclaimed, "How could he do that to his parents!" I have a vague recollection of my parents taking us aside after these incidents and explaining how Koreans should be married to Koreans.

Later, my mother clarified that a Korean-American -- as opposed to a Korean who grew up in Korea -- would be better for me since I was so head-strong. A couple of years after I started working, she further clarified that he should earn as much as I did -- and have an advanced degree as I did, lest he be humiliated in the eyes of his wife.

We painfully learned the consequences of making the wrong choices. Like the time my brother brought home a wrong girlfriend. She seemed right at first. She was Korean-American from a decent enough family. Seemingly polite enough. But for some unspoken reason, my dad decided that she was not right. Not right for our household, even if my brother had apparently decided that she was right for him and I silently thought she was good for him in many ways. But my father felt otherwise. When she came over, my father refused to acknowledge her, even when she greeted him politely and did all the proper things. Sadly, she did not last long.

This process of making decisions by viewing all variables through the disapproving eyes of our parents wasn't limited to just dating. It dominated almost all decisions in our lives, including school selection, our career choices, where to live. When I was applying to colleges, there were only a handful of colleges that were acceptable to my parents. A wide assortment of Yale, Harvard, or Columbia. That was about it. Maybe they would have been okay with Princeton. When I did not get accepted into any of those, my father insisted that I would have to attend a state school, even though I had been accepted into the University of Chicago, my first choice. It became an uphill battle to try to convince my father -- and perhaps myself -- that I wasn't a complete failure because I had not been accepted into those three or four schools deemed acceptable in his eyes.

Most decisions in our lives seemed to be a matter of approval or disapproval. Either our actions pleased our parents or they did not. As children, I don't think we ever stopped to consider the difference between our actions and our being -- or the difference between approval and love. When they approved of something we did, we beamed in their eyes and felt loved. When they disapproved, we felt spurned and rejected.

I've discussed the notion of unconditional love with some of my Korean-American friends, and we often conclude that we do not believe in such a concept. Maybe because we grew up in households where love was never verbalized. Where the only semblance of love was approval, which peaked and waned with the choices we made.

Focusing so much on my parents' approval often cast a shadow over other factors that we should have considered, either more carefully or in their own light. Most decisions became for or against them -- but we rarely considered the question of were they right for us? Maybe we did ask those questions, but often they were so cluttered with worries and anxieties about our parents' reaction that I wonder if they ever got the attention they deserved.

I think my parents must have grown up in a time and a culture where children did not make decisions. At least not to the degree children do here. I remember my mother once marveling over how American parents stop to ask even toddlers their preferences on things, including what they want to eat or where they want to sit. She rued that she had not done so with us -- that she had always simply told us what to do and how to do it.

I sometimes wonder about this part of my upbringing. Even now, I often find it difficult to make decisions. And the decision making process becomes easier when I have an opposing force -- that kicks me into an emotional and reactive mode. I have been trying to think of ways to extricate myself from this overdeveloped need to gain approval -- or to fight against disapproval. To be a person with more integrity to keep her in balance.

And I think about ways in which I raise my son -- to allow him to be his own person without needing to meet my approval at every turn. To help him to develop the skills to assess and meet his own needs -- without feeling crippled by the needs of others. And to fortify him with the assurance that he stands on solid ground even when we disapprove -- that our love does not peak and wane with the school he attends or the girl he chooses to date.

For my part, I intend to speak clearly when I speak of love -- and softly and sparingly when I disapprove, if I have to disapprove at all.


  1. You're like a sister from another mother. Seriously. I could go on and on about this but I'll send you an e-mail soon.

  2. Same as the commenter above. I'm more than a decade behind you but so many thing are the same. The anger. The Korean parent obsession with defects....oh and my mom's declaration of no blacks, Latinos, south Asians, and Korean Americans either. When I was a junior in high school. While she drove me to school.